Charles Walters directed Leslie Caron to a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her starring role in Lili. This poignant 1953 film is like an indie musical drama that was produced and released by a major Hollywood studio. Lili was made at MGM, the top shop for deluxe musicals in Hollywood's golden age. In this post-World War 2 story, Caron is a lonely and desperate French orphan, so desperate that she briefly considers suicide. She is a poor teen. An older man tries to sexually molest her. She is saved by a traveling carnival act -- specifically the puppets in a carnival act. She joins them in song. Lili is a born entertainer, a charismatic talent with that little something extra. Lili joins the carnival. She's great for business. Audiences love her. She's a star. But, inside, she's still a lonely and insecure girl soon to blossom into a lovely and warm young woman.
Judy has an all male chorus and Walters wins as her featured main dance partner in the wonderful "Embraceable You" number in 1943's Girl Crazy co-starring Mickey Rooney. Vocally and dance-wise, Garland was in fine form for this MGM musical comedy.
This production number with Walters shows what a graceful, solid dancer Garland was -- even though she was primarily known as a singer. True, she wasn't a Cyd Charisse or an Eleanor Powell, but she could certainly hold her own dancing with Astaire, Kelly and Charles Walters.
Look at her in this ritzy production number. Look at Judy's "Portland Fancy" barn dance number with Gene Kelly in Walters' Summer Stock. Amazing. And she had nowhere near the extensive dance training that Kelly did. Charles Walters knew first-hand that Judy Garland was one of the most awesome triple threat talents in Hollywood movie history. That singing voice was extraordinary. She could dance. She was a gifted actress whom, I feel, was dramatically under-utilized in that respect. She had the chops, in her teen years, to play Emily in Our Town if MGM had purchased that project for her after 1939's The Wizard of Oz. She had the emotional depth to play Jane Eyre as effectively as Joan Fontaine did in the 1940s. We saw the range of her musical and dramatic power in 1954's remake of A Star Is Born, the performance that brought her a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
Her only non-musical during her MGM years was Vincente Minnelli's excellent World War 2 love story, The Clock. Watch Garland's dramatic debut in that. She could've beautifully handled a sophisticated remake with music of 1939's Love Affair -- which Deborah Kerr did with Cary Grant in 1957's An Affair to Remember.
Garland's personal problems were heavy when she shot Summer Stock. The 1950 hit musical comedy was her last completed feature for the studio. She was released from her contract during her troubled Annie Get Your Gun shoot and replaced by Betty Hutton. Walters had been working with Garland on Annie Get Your Gun.
Why do I bring all this up about Judy Garland? Lili was based on a short story in a popular magazine. When I first saw Lili, I saw it on a network TV program for kids when I was a youngster. As I got older and read about Charles Walters' working relationship with and his long affection for Garland, Lili seemed to have another heart to it.
Lili is director Charles Walters' valentine to Judy Garland.
The story echoes Garland's life during her 15 years under contract to MGM. Lili is a fatherless girl who gets a job working for a colorful carnival. The shows are colorful but the work is hard. Like a Hollywood studio, it's a dream factory and Lili has a factory job. The carnival employs Lili as a waitress. That's not the right job for her. Here dreams are better than her reality. Her spirit is bruised.
When Lili sings "Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo" with the carnival puppets, she becomes a carnival star overnight. She's great for business the way Judy was a major box office star for MGM. Leslie Caron got what Judy Garland should've received for The Wizard of Oz, but didn't. Caron got a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for a role that seems simple, but it's not. If Caron doesn't believe fully in those puppets and see them as real characters, if she doesn't have a touch of wistfulness in her soul, the whole film falls apart. Garland was not a star when she was shooting The Wizard of Oz. It's now Hollywood history that MGM wanted to borrow Shirley Temple for the lead but couldn't get her because she was too big a star at 20th Century Fox. Garland got the part and the rest is history. She was 16 and working with veteran actors in their 30s and 40s. The production was resting on her shoulders because, if her performance didn't work, the whole film would fall apart. Hers is a rich, sincere, touching performance that holds up today. She was as perfect for the role of Dorothy as Vivien Leigh (1939 Best Actress Oscar winner) was perfect for the role of Scarlett in 1939's Gone With The Wind. Was Judy nominated for her golden work? No. She was given a special juvenile Oscar, a mini-version.
After The Wizard of Oz, young Judy became MGM's top musical comedy female star of the 1940s. But, like Lili, she was still an insecure kid on the inside who didn't feel she could compete with the glamour girls on the lot. She fell in love with the suave, sophisticated and smart Artie Shaw, one of the most popular big band leaders/musicians of the era. They dated. Artie broke Judy's heart when he married sexy blonde Lana Turner. Artie and Lena did a movie together (MGM's The Dancing Co-Ed in 1939). Think about Shaw when you watch Jean Pierre Aumont as the carnival magician in Lili with Zsa Zsa Gabor as the magician's glamorous, sexy blonde assistant.
Lili is a compact little musical drama, only 81 minutes. This coming of age story ends with a ballet choreographed by Charles Walters. It's a lovely, symbolic number. Like Dorothy and her fantasy friends The Wizard of Oz, Lili and her fantasy friends dance down a road of life.
When I was a young adult, I read that MGM had shelved Lili for a while. The studio heads weren't sure if the public would like it. But when it was screened for folks on the lot, the response was quite enthusiastic. Hearts were touched. Besides Leslie Caron's Oscar nomination, the film got an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay and Charles Walters was nominated for Best Director.
Lili went into production when Judy Garland was gone from MGM and no longer married to Vincente Minnelli. If you look at Minnelli's Gigi, the story of an older man falling in love with a young lady he's seen grow from a playful teen into a desirable young woman resembles Minnelli's relationship with Judy. He was in his early 40s when he fell for and married the 20something Judy.
In 1961, Lili was turned into a hit Broadway musical called Carnival. Charles Walters' Lili is available on Warner Archive DVD.
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